History of Career Counseling

Career counseling, or vocational guidance as it was originally known, has a long history within the counseling professions. Career counseling was born in the United States in the latter 19th century out of societal upheaval, transition, and change. This new profession was described by historians as a progressive social reform movement aimed at eradicating poverty and substandard living conditions that had been created by the rapid industrialization and consequent migration of people to major urban centers at the turn of the 20th century.

The social upheaval in the United States that gave birth to career counseling was characterized by a host of economic issues: the loss of jobs in the agricultural sector, increasing demands for workers in heavy industry, the loss of permanent jobs on the family farm to new emerging technologies such as tractors, the increasing urbanization of the United States, and the concomitant calls for services to meet this internal migration pattern—all this in order to retool for the new industrial economy. Returning veterans from World War I and those displaced by their return also heightened the need for career counseling.

First Stage: Job Placement Services (1890-1919)

The focus of the first stage in the history of career counseling was job placement. Frank Parsons, the founder of career counseling, began as a social worker heavily influenced by the work of Jane Addams in Chicago. In Boston, Parsons established a settlement house program for young people either already employed or currently unemployed who had been displaced during this period of rapid change. The placement of these young people into new jobs was one of the initial and most important purposes of this new agency.

Parsons’s career counseling model was grounded in simple logic and common sense and relied on the observing and interviewing skills of the counselor. Parsons stated that there are three broad factors in the choice of an occupation: (1) knowledge of self, (2) knowledge of the requirements for success in different occupations, (3) matching these two groups of facts. This largely intuitive and experiential foundation of career counseling formed the basis for Parsons’s establishing the Vocation Bureau at Civic Service House in Boston in 1908, the first institutionalization of career counseling in the United States.

During this first stage, an important factor in the establishment of career counseling was the increasing involvement of psychological testing with career counseling. Psychological tests became an important and necessary part of the first functional stage in career counseling, that is, self-assessment. Testing gave career counseling respectability in U.S. society. Without a scientific procedure to justify this first stage, it is unlikely that career counseling would have been so popularly accepted. Francis Galton, Wilhelm Wundt, James McKean Cattell, and Alfred Binet made important contributions to the newly emerging field of psychological testing and through extension to career counseling.

Another important factor in the establishment of career counseling was the early support for vocational guidance that came from the Progressive social reform movement. Child labor laws were the reason for this collaboration as this crusade to prohibit the exploitation of children grew. Although some states beginning with Pennsylvania had established minimum age laws in the latter half of the 19th century, the first decade of the 20th century continued to see over half of a million children from 10 to 13 years of age employed. Effective federal legislation did not come about until the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Parsons was a prominent leader in the struggle to eliminate child labor.

Furthermore, laws supportive of vocational guidance were beginning to receive much social support. For example, the landmark Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 established secondary school vocational education training. This legislation was strengthened in succeeding years by the George-Reed Act (1929), George-Ellzey Act (1934), and the George-Deen Act (1936)—all supporting vocational education as an important part of the public schools. Furthermore, in 1913 the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) was founded, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which had been part of the Department of the Interior, was moved into the DOL.

Also out of this transition came the founding in 1913 of the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA; now the National Career Development Association [NCDA]) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Third National Conference on Vocational Guidance. The founders of NVGA included Frank Leavitt (first president), Jesse B. Davis (second president), Meyer Bloomfield (third president and Parsons’s successor at the Boston Vocation Bureau and teacher of the first course in vocational guidance in 1911 at Harvard University), and John M. Brewer (fifth NVGA president and author of the definitive history of career guidance in the United States, 1942).

Second Stage: Educational Guidance in the Schools (1920-1939)

Educational counseling, the second stage in the development of career counseling, emerged from the work of humanitarian, progressive social reformers in the schools. Such reformers included Jesse B. Davis, who served as a counselor on educational and career problems at Central High School in Detroit in 1898 and Eli Weaver, who was a New York City school system principal in 1906. Promoting career development in the schools, however, was slow work. For example, as late as the 1930s there were no vocational guidance programs in at least half of the schools in cities in the United States with populations of 10,000 or more. Elementary and secondary education, however, received an influx of students both as a result of increased needs for literacy to cope with increasing demands of industrialization and the increase in numbers of school-aged children as a direct result of the boom in pregnancies following the end of World War I.

Organized labor’s strength was growing fast in the wake of the economic depression, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was a response both to the growing power of unions as well as to loss of jobs. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established in 1933 to provide training and employment opportunity for unemployed youth, and the educational services of the CCC were supervised by the U.S. Department of Education.

Then, in 1935, the Works Progress Administration was established through federal legislation as an employment source for the millions of people out of work. Finally, the B’nai B’rith Vocational Service Bureau was opened in 1938 in Washington, D.C., and local Jewish Vocational Services were established in 25 major U.S. cities. The first edition of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (the official government occupational classification) was published in 1939.

Third Stage: Colleges and Universities and the Training of Counselors (1940-1959)

The third stage was characterized by the focus of societal resources on colleges and the training of professional counselors as response to a new social transition engendered by two major events that set the tone for all subsequent worldwide actions: World War II and the USSR’s (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—now the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine) successful launching of rockets that orbited Earth and even landed on the moon.

First, World War II focused the energy and attention of all nations of the world on this contest between nationalistic fascism (Germany, Japan, Italy) and capitalism-communism, which were allied at this time (United States, USSR, Great Britain, France). President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal program was a response to the problems encountered by returning armed services veterans. The lack of jobs and the subsequent displacement of current workers by these returning veterans were important societal problems that the Truman program attempted to address.

Second, the USSR successfully launched the first space probe (Sputnik I, 1957), followed by Lunik II (1959) landing on the moon. These two events more than any other humbled American capitalism for a time. The United States had considered itself far superior technologically to any other country on Earth; however, when the USSR was so successful in their space program, this impelled federal legislators to begin to address the problems in science and math education all across the United States. The passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA, 1957) was a direct response to this. The Counseling and Guidance Training Institutes were established under NDEA to provide training for counselors who were to identify and encourage science and math majors for college education. This was a boom period for the training of counselors and almost 14,000 counselors received training in these NDEA Institutes.

Two social conditions characterized the post-World War II period that led to the rise of the professional practice of career counseling: (1) the personal and career problems of veterans, especially those who were disabled during the war; (2) the influx of new types of students to higher education (generally older, nontraditional) as a result of the GI Bill of Rights.

As a direct result of the growth of vocational guidance and the realization that there was strength in joining together with other professional organizations, the NVGA became one of the founding divisions of the American Personnel and Guidance Association (later to become the American Association for Counseling and Development, and now the American Counseling Association) in 1951.

Fourth Stage: Meaningful Work and Organizational Career Development (1960-1979)

The 1960s were a time of idealism and hope. John F. Kennedy’s election as U.S. president (1960), Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (1965), the beginning of the great modern-day civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and the economic highs of this stage all came together to focus a generation of young people on the potential, myths, and illusions of American society, providing for them a new vision of personal, social, and cultural relations.

Many young people wanted jobs that were meaningful and that would allow them to change the world for the better. Young Americans were questioning the character of available jobs and the overly conforming and depersonalizing conditions under which most individuals worked. The United States at that time was regarded as a rich, sophisticated, yet humane nation dedicated to providing all of its citizens with a broad spectrum of services and opportunities for achieving the good life. And young people wanted the United States to live up to its ideals.

The type of federal legislation enacted into law during this period is also illustrative of the expectations of Americans during this fourth stage. At the beginning of the 1960s, the unemployment rate was 8.1%, the highest since the 1930s. President Kennedy entered office in 1961 and as one of his first acts appointed a panel of consultants on vocational education who issued their report through the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1962, which stated that school counselors need to also have exceptional understanding of the world of work and its complexities. Their recommendations were written into legislation in the Vocational Education Act of 1963 and updated through its amendments in 1968 and 1976.

This report was soon followed by more federal legislation similarly crafted. Not since the founding of the United States in 1776 had there been such a plethora of social programs enacted into law in such a short time, including the Area Redevelopment Act (1961) , Manpower Development and Training Act (1962) , Economic Opportunity Act (1964; this act created Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, Youth Opportunity Centers, and Head Start), Social Security Act (1967; this act included Work Incentive Program for welfare clients).

Finally, the National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee (NOICC) and the State Occupational Information Coordinating Committees were established by the Vocational Education Act Amendments of 1976. These supra- and intragovernmental coordinating agencies were designated to coordinate the delivery of labor market and other career information among four federal agencies—the Employment and Training Agency, National Center for Education Statistics, BLS, and the Education Commission—and among similar state entities. Led by Juliet Lester, this forced yet historic alliance among such federal agencies to make career information available for coordinated public use was to have far-reaching consequences in the next 20 years, for it would supply the information needs for both the career counselors who required such data for their livelihood and the general public who required such data for career decision making.

As a direct result of the legislation enacted during this fourth stage, career counseling in organizational settings came to the forefront of the career counseling movement. Growth in career counseling in governmental agencies, nonprofit community agencies, and business and industry were the hallmarks of this stage. Such governmental agencies as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and Office of Management and Budget had large career development centers with substantial staffs. Such companies as Glaxo Pharmaceuticals, Pacific Bell, and IBM also developed internal career services centers.

Fifth Stage: Independent Practice Career Counseling and Outplacement Counseling (1980-1989)

The late 1970s, however, were characterized by a declining economic system rather than by the growth and prosperity of the early 1960s. This began the fifth stage transition in the 1980s—from an industrial age to an information and technology age. This new transition spawned another host of problems, such as loss of jobs in the industrial sectors of our economy, increasing demands from employers for technological skills, loss of permanent jobs to contract labor, loss of job security, and marginalization of organized labor— all in order to retool for the information and technology economy.

In 1987, the Hudson Institute commissioned and published a report titled Workforce 2000, which laid the foundation for the career development policies of both presidents George H. W. Bush’s (1988-1991) and Bill Clinton’s (1992-2000) federal administrations. This report was particularly noteworthy in the history of career counseling because of its demographic assumptions about the composition of the new American workforce, that new entrants into that workforce will be predominantly ethnic and racial minorities.

During this stage, the emergence of the private practice career counselor was the direct result of the beginnings of national acceptance of career counseling as an important service to provide to a citizenry in occupational transition as well as to the proliferation of mental health private practices. This practitioner whose livelihood depended on continuous marketing of short-term career counseling provided the vitality for the expansion and growth of the professional practice of career counseling during this period as well as for the credentialing of such practitioners.

NVGA had always taken the lead in establishing standards for the profession: (1) standards for the practice of vocational guidance, (2) standards for occupational materials, (3) standards for the training of counselors, and (4) standards for vocational counseling agencies. As a result of the emergence of the private practice career counselor and the heavy pressure from within the profession, NVGA initiated a specific credential for career counseling professionals. The National Certified Career Counselor credential included substantial academic and experiential requirements along with an examination (National Career Counselor Examination). As a precursor to that credential, NVGA promulgated Vocational/Career Counseling Competencies in 1982, which were developed as a list of competencies necessary for counselors to perform the task of career-vocational guidance and counseling. These competencies were preceded by the AVA-NVGA Position Paper on Career Development (1973), the APGA Position Paper on Career Guidance (1975), the ACES Position Paper on Counselor Preparation for Career Development (1976), the AIR Report on Competencies Needed for Planning, Supporting, Implementing, Operating, and Evaluating Career Guidance Programs (1979), and the APGA Career Education Project (1980). NVGA then established the National Council for Credentialing Career Counselors in 1983; and using the above competencies, this independent credentialing body developed the National Career Counselor Examination that was first administered at the 1984 AACD Convention in Houston, Texas. Also, in 1984, a letter of intent to affiliate was filed with the new National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). The National Certified Career Counselor credential became the first specialty certification area for NBCC.

Concurrent with the emergence of the private practice of career counseling, outplacement counseling also had its beginning. Outplacement is a term used when a company is having economic difficulties and begins to downsize or fire currently employed workers to decrease staffing costs and increase profit margins. Outplacement counselors are then brought in to help those workers find new employment—placement outside of their company. Outplacement led to the founding of such firms as Bernard Haldane; Drake, Beam, and Morin; Lee Hecht Harrison; and Right Associates, who competed for these lucrative outplacement contracts side by side with career counselors in independent practice.

The rise in the use of technology in business and industry in the United States led to the passage of two very important federal laws during this stage: Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (1988) and Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act (1984). The Omnibus Trade Act included provisions to assist persons to enter into or advance in high technology occupations or to meet the technological needs of other industries or businesses as well as preemployment skills training, school-to-work transition programs, and school-business partnerships.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act became law in 1984. This replaced the Vocational Education Act of 1963, which had been amended in 1968 and 1976, and extended federal authorization for vocational education programs through 1989. It was notable for strengthening programs for underserved populations, listed as “disadvantaged individuals, handicapped individuals, adults requiring training/ retraining, Indians, limited English-proficient students, participants in programs to eliminate sex bias in vocational education, native Hawaiians, single parents/ homemakers, criminal offenders, and unemployed or workers threatened by unemployment.” The Perkins Act has been amended continuously by the federal government, but even today continues to be the vehicle for career guidance authorization in the schools.

During this fifth stage, NVGA was in transition as well, and the change of name in 1984 to the NCDA completed a process begun by Donald Super in the 1950s. Super’s developmental theory led to a redefinition of vocational guidance as a more life-span, now termed career, developmental orientation. The acceptance and use of this new concept, career development, by practitioners and theoreticians alike was the necessary precursor to the organizational name change.

Sixth Stage: New Directions (1990-Present)

At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, career counseling had found itself being extended in a variety of new directions: upward (outplacement, senior executives, with attorneys), downward (poor people, resume writers for homeless), outward (schools and agencies through federal legislation), and inward (multicultural and other specialties).

The upward extension was into the populations of business executives who had rarely used these services before, but now through economic imperatives (they were losing their jobs and had nowhere else to turn) they found themselves looking for work at times in their lives when they should have been planning for a financially successful retirement from the companies that they had spent their entire lives building.

The downward extension was into the poor and homeless socioeconomic classes who were being required to go to work because of new governmental policies like the Greater Avenues to Independence, the Job Training Partnership Act, Welfare to Work (1997), and Workforce Initiative Act (1998). The Welfare to Work Act (1997) was the harshest of these laws as it set a 5-year limit on any person in the United States receiving economic support through a federally administered economic support program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which replaced the federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The idea was to get those who have experienced or have characteristics associated with long-term welfare dependence into unsubsidized jobs, to get them in jobs first (called a work first service strategy), and then to train them postemployment. The role of career counseling and development professionals was to assist in this process where they could, a process that varied from state to state and from local agency to local agency.

The outward extension was brought about through renewed interest and support for career development through the policies of the federal government. Not since the 1960s had so many important laws affecting American citizens’ career development been passed. Beginning with President George H. W. Bush and carrying over to President Bill Clinton, there was a resurgence in interest in the lifelong career development of the American populace, as shown in such federal legislation as the School-to-Work Opportunities Act (1994), One-Stop Career Centers Act (1994), and Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), along with the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act Amendments of 1998 (formerly titled the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act), the Higher Education Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The role of organized career counseling and development professionals and federal agencies working together through the NCDA, American Vocational Association (AVA; now Association for Career and Technical Education), NOICC and State OICCs, and American School Counselor Association was pivotal to the final legislation authorizing the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. This legislation began a revolution in the process of schooling in the United States by refocusing the nation’s educational resources on the very real, difficult, but underattended transition that all students must make from schooling to jobs. Finally, an inward development was that specialties within the field of career counseling began to be developed by career counseling private practitioners. Such specialties included multicultural populations (African Americans, Asian Americans, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities), attorneys, senior executives, and spousal and international relocation to name but a few. Such increasing specialization is the result of the maturing of a profession.

The changing demographics of the American workforce also came to the forefront during this period. Ken Hoyt addressed NCDA in 1988 and reviewed the progress that women and ethnic and racial minorities in the United States have made during the past 20 years. Hoyt, who worked for the U.S. Department of Education and wrote their definition of work, was president of both the American Counseling Association and NCDA. These changing demographics have led to a greater emphasis in career counseling on multicultural counseling skills.

Another aspect of the sixth stage is an increasing technological sophistication that has led to instant communication by telephone, facsimile transmission, and the Internet to anywhere in the world. Personal communication devices such as pagers and cellular-digital telephones have made it possible to contact people wherever they are. Extensions of these changes for the career counselor was the provision of career services over the Internet and by telephone as well as the opening up of career counseling markets in other countries.

With the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, opening of economic doors in China, and the steady 7% annual economic growth in Southeast Asia, career counselors from the United States have also expanded their practices internationally. This expansion has included substantial energy and economic investment in taking career counseling to other countries. Career counselors from the United States are doing substantial contract work in Singapore, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, Estonia, and Poland, to name but a few. This is only the beginning of this trend as these technological advances drive the worldwide dissemination of information and innovations in the delivery of career counseling services.


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  6. W. T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. (Ed.). (1988). The forgotten half: Pathways to success for America’s youth and young families (Final Report). Washington, DC: Author.

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